Giving credit: The fertilizer of innovation

Originally published in the Upstate Business Journal // March 2, 2017

There is a distinctive hallmark of innovative cultures: Credit is freely given to those who have led or contributed to innovation.

Innovation is largely an organic process. It’s difficult to force an innovative outcome through a process. As in gardening, you can follow a process perfectly and yet your yield is still utterly dependent on many factors outside of the process that you hope to control.

So it’s worth noting that one of the things that is within our control is cultivating a culture of giving credit where credit is due. This simple idea is the fertilizer of innovation. Without it, innovation may still grow, but it will not flourish to its fullest potential.

Our estimations are biased

At root level, the challenge we all face in giving credit where credit is due is the fact that we overestimate our contributions to innovation and we underestimate contributions made by others. It’s doubtful that anyone would argue a counterpoint to this, but it’s astonishing to see how blind we are to our own biases in this regard.

When you stop to consider it, it’s easy to understand why our blindness exists. We are the curators of our own thoughts, and we have a tendency to protect our notions of self-worth by oftentimes ascribing more value to our own efforts (real or just perceived) than what is warranted.

Couple this with the fact that socially we are interacting with others who are doing the same, and that causes the “algebraic” equation of credit to be unbalanced. With multiple people vying for credit, it becomes impossible for all parties to receive the credit that they believe is due to them. That then can cause us to perceive that we are in a credit-deficit, which compels us to more actively seek our own credit in the future. In a sense, this cycle can become the opposite of a pay-it-forward philosophy and we therefore collectively carry a credit-deficit forward, which inhibits more than just innovation.

Opportunists: The garden pests of innovation

It’s one thing to stifle a culture of innovation through your own bias (at least you can change that once you are aware of it), but it’s another thing for innovation to flourish when invaded by opportunists. I think we often view charismatic, take-charge individuals as key components to organizational success (and they can be). But when those individuals exploit circumstances to gain short-term advantage, they are essentially the garden pests of innovation.

This seems to be especially true among organizational middle management. Sure, there are opportunists among all strata of organizations, but middle management often has the most pressure to perform in order to justify their role and they have the most tempting circumstances to claim credit in ways that won’t send up noticeable red flags within the organization (much like when top-level management attempts to claim credit and everyone in the organization notices).

The net result is that these small credit land-grabs demoralize the individuals and teams of people who truly contribute to the small innovations that take place on any given day. Eventually, a spirit of innovation dies on the vine.

Weeding out opportunists may seem painful in the short term, but the long-term cultural gain is exponentially more impactful.

Freedom is the key

If we truly want to create, preserve, or foster a culture of innovation, it fundamentally starts with a collective freedom from the outcome. When we get tied up in the result, we will inevitably make choices that we think will lead to the intended result and we will want to ensure that we receive credit for those choices. The irony in this, especially in terms of innovation, is that truly innovative actions do not have a guaranteed result. We cannot definitively know the outcome. So it is foolish to scramble for credit for an outcome we cannot truly expect. When we acknowledge this and when we free ourselves from the tyranny of receiving credit to our name, we can then be free to give credit where credit is due. That is the fertilizer of innovation, and that is how we can effectively cultivate a culture of innovation that reseeds itself perennially.

If innovation matters, then freedom matters.